For Christmas last year I decided to make the 15 km journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, across that line, to see what the thousands of pilgrims do there every year. To be clear, I am resolutely not religious. However, I have been known to shed tears in churches, temples and sometimes when I hear the Islamic call to prayer. I chalk this up to being an affected aesthete.
My accommodation for my two nights in Bethlehem was through an alternative travel agency who placed me with a Palestinian family. Not just any Palestinian family, but the family of one of the tour guides/ politically connected big deal in his community. My host was one of the most gracious gentlemen I have ever met and taught me a great deal about the conflict, from a very sympathetic and moderate perspective. His family were completely welcoming, his wife cooked me the most fantastic Palestinian food and his children entertained Pierre. Or the other way round. It was a truly lovely two days.
Side story: My host had not been to Jerusalem in 18 years - since 1992 - due to his being Palestinian and not having a Jerusalem ID card (these are very difficult to obtain, you need to live in Jerusalem). On the day I was returning to Jerusalem, him and his family were also making the very short journey across the checkpoint, as he and his wife had finally been granted permission slips to visit. To be able to go with them was a real honour.
I started my evening of the 24th at Shepherd's Field, which was - extremely surprisingly - full of busloads of Indonesian tourists all wearing Santa hats. The two lovely girls above let me photograph them.
Security: tight. As always. The main Church is closed to the general public while the VIPs attend midnight mass.
Martin and I sit down for a glass of "HOLY LAND" wine, which I'm now concerned may have been settler wine - but probably not, given we were in Palestine.
Check out that couple above.
In the church once the VIP mass is over. There is an incredibly eclectic mix of people, including a Priest from Argentina who gives me his prayer beads (which he bought in Rome and used to pray during the VIP Midnight Mass). Below, these young, clearly wealthy British kids arrive amongst much pomp and are treated as special. I would love to know why. Everywhere around this church there were secret doors and out-of-bounds areas with Euro money entering and leaving ... the Church really knows how to do elitism and hierarchy.
The next day (the 25th): I visit the Church built around the spot where Jesus was supposedly born. I am saying 'supposedly' not as a snide atheist, but because there is a lot of contention as to where precisely he was born - and many naysayers regarding this particular choice.
Going down into the little underground room with that star on the ground. The woman in front of me was writhing on the floor having a rather mystical time, when the Monk asked her brusquely to 'please, move along' and looked at me, asked me to remain standing, to which I replied "of course I will". He looked back at writhing lady and rolled his eyes with me.
Uncovering the original floor (above) and Bethlehem at night (below).